The strong-willed child is determined and wants to do things their own way. They don’t give up easily – but they are reasonable and can accept alternatives if they are presented to them in the right way. The stubborn child, however, refuses to listen to reason, they are set in their own way, and refuse to give way even though their behavior is self-defeating, immature, and often short-sighted.
Strong-willed children want to be in charge of themselves. They want to learn things their way, rather than simply do as others say. They test boundaries, engage in power struggles, and are passionate about their beliefs.
If you have a strong-willed child there will be challenges, but in the long-term, their determination will be an enormous asset. They are the people who get things done, they are the people who maybe change the world.
But living with a strong-willed child can be hard work. You don’t want to break their spirit, but you do need to help them find positive ways to spend their energy. Persuade, explain, and enjoy!
So, how do you deal with your strong-willed child and keep the peace in your household?
Pick your battles
The fewer rules the less opportunity is there for rebellion. You do need some. You have to keep your child safe and healthy – but decide what MUST be done and what doesn’t matter that much. Sometimes it helps to formulate a set of rules – but do this with your child. Explain why you want this done and see whether they can offer an acceptable alternative. They are far more likely to keep to the rules when they have had a hand in making them.
Homework is often a source of contention. You know it has to be done. Your child thinks it’s a waste of valuable playtime. You think she should get it done as soon as she comes home from school. She complains of being tired and hungry – her brain needs a rest! You discuss the problem.
You agree that a short break with snack will give her brain the energy it needs. She agrees to get her homework done before going out to play.
Another example, you might want her to wear a hat in the rain, but she wants to feel the rain on her head. Does it matter? You can always help her dry off when you get inside – and maybe next time she will decide for herself that a hat is a good idea! And maybe not! Later, as a teen she will be experimenting with makeup – and you might have to hold your fire when she messes up. But you could find someone to help her find what suits her.
But there are times when you have to win your battle. Make sure you can, kids need to know that there are boundaries. They will test them, again and again, but when they realize that some things are non-negotiable it gives them a sense of safety. You may need to explain why they can’t visit granny today – but a strong-willed child will accept a good reason. A stubborn child may not.
Almost the first word that many children learn when they are between 11 and 15 months of age is the word “NO”, and it’s a word of power. (It’s also a word that as a nice compliant adult we often forget how to use.) Your child realizes he can change things. He can decide things for himself. He can assert himself. Your child is finding his own personality.
Now is your chance to negotiate – and in doing so give your child a skill he will need in the years ahead.
So why is he saying “no”? Is there a reason that needs recognizing? Maybe he is totally immersed in playing with his zoo animals and needs a short time to finish. You should give him a warning – “Two minutes and then it’s time to put the animals to bed and then bedtime for you. I’ll help you.”
Or, “Would you like to sleep with one of your animals, lets chose one now?” This changes a rather negative instruction to something that is fun and leads him on to bedtime smoothly. The “No” has become a “Yes”.
You might offer to continue to play by choosing an animal to have a bath, “since he got very mucky playing in the sand”. The offer of more play is irresistible and your child has had his feelings respected. So you have to listen to what he is really saying – “I want to play,” is not the same as “I don’t want a bath”.
Sometimes a child will not want a bath because they are frightened they may disappear down the plughole. Don’t belittle their fears. Tell them that they can get out of the bath and then pull the plug out themselves. As they watch the water circling around the plughole you can make some joke about them being “really far too big to get down that tiny hole”.
Choices have consequences
Of course, you could give him a choice, phrased as a reward rather than a penalty. “Would you like a nice warm bath now and then we shall have time for a story, but if you take too long there won’t be time for the story.” “Too long” needs defining – “till I count to 10” shows that you won’t let them go on playing for “too long”. They are experts at prolonging time and find reason after reason to delay – if you let them.
A reward system leaves the choice up to your child. But the clear instruction and time limit tells them what they can expect. Just don’t be too soft-hearted and tell them the story anyway if they have delayed. They will remember this and use it in the future. These children have long memories.
Giving a choice
Suppose you want your daughter to wear the blue dress – but it doesn’t matter too much as long as she puts a dress on. Lay out a blue and green dress and ask her to choose. This gives her some control. If she is feeling very contrary suggest she wears the green dress – and she will choose the blue.
When your child says “NO” to going out you might say something like, “We have to leave in a minute – maybe you could decide which animal deserves a treat and we can let it come with us.” Again, you have diverted their attention and given them some power.
Planning ahead will prevent them from becoming bored – let them chose a toy or book to take to the waiting room so they do not feel they are wasting their time.
Kids love a joke
You can repeat the word “NO” in a jokey way. “NO, NO, NO, don’t get your coat on. NO, NO, NO, not shoes either NO, NO, NO, we are staying in”. Or you could use the word “Yes” instead – “YES, YES, YES we are putting on our coat. YES, YES, YES, we are finding our shoes. YES, YES, YES, we are coming OUT, OUT, OUT…” It’s almost a dance. You have to a bit mad to have children!
Listen to what he doesn’t say
As a parent, you will be attuned to your child. You will listen when he tells you something but there are times when you need to seek for the meaning underneath his words. He’s not defying you, he’s expressing a worry, a need, some thought that he would love you to acknowledge. He may tell you that he doesn’t want to go to football, but the real reason might be that he doesn’t want to go because the instructor shouts at him. Ask him if he’s worried about something and listen carefully to the reply. Then deal with it and let him know how you will do so.
Acknowledge the disappointment
Tell him you can see he is sad that he has to stop playing now and that you are sorry. “But maybe you can play all day at the weekend?”
Strong willed children don’t just obey
As one child worked out – “Rules are for the obedience of fools and the guidance of wise men”, and promptly decided that she was wise.
Obedience means doing something some else has told you to do. It may not be right, it may not be moral – and it may not conform with that child’s thinking. If you want your child to obey you, then you have to have their trust, they have to know that you have their wellbeing at heart. Then they might listen to you, and even obey. As your child grows into adolescence he will be subject to peer pressure – and a strong-willed child has a better chance than an easily led child of not engaging in petty theft, taking drugs, or other harmful behavior.
Strong-willed children are wonderful arguers! They have an answer for everything and will pick you up on any inconsistencies. They demand fairness and will point any apparent injustice. They are also experts in selective hearing!
“Do as I say not as I do,” is hardly the best way to get obedience! He will follow your example – and become the kind considerate adult, able to take responsibility, someone people can trust, that you are aiming for.
One warning, one chance or face the consequences
Some people don’t seem to realize that actions have consequences. This can lead them to make one blunder after another even as adults.
State clearly what you want them to do and what will happen if they don’t – and always follow through. Your child will soon learn that you mean what you say! (Or not!) You might ask them to get their homework done or they won’t be able to watch TV that evening. And if they refuse to do their homework or mess about – then no TV that evening.
You’re the adult
Even when your child grows into a teen, you are still the adult. Using respect and humor you can usually change a “no” into a “Yes”.
How to deal with the stubborn child
If your child is throwing a temper tantrum, it’s no good trying to reason with them at the time. They have to calm down first. Your need to stay cool, relaxed, and be present for them. They are upset and may need comforting after the angry tears have been shed.
Here are some steps to help cope with a stubborn child:
- Wait till they have calmed down, get their attention, and only then speak.
- Stay calm – use a quiet tone of voice – shouting just makes things worse.
- There is no need to keep repeating yourself. Make your talk short.
- Find out if there is a reason behind his apparent unreason.
- If you expect her to listen to you then you have to listen to her!
This is a great time to set up some routines with your child.
A strong-willed child will do what they want to do. Your job is to turn their “NO” into “YES”. Cajoling, begging, or nagging are ineffective and unpleasant.
There is a difference between being stubborn and strong-willed. Stubborn can be immovable and intractable. Reason and logic do not affect this. These stubborn children can get angry and upset when they feel thwarted. But with patience and calmness, you can change this stubborn streak into the strong-willed child you want him to be. Listen and be ready to talk when he is ready.
But bringing up a strong-willed child has its challenges. They argue, they want to do things their way, they demand fairness and they have elephantine memories. They quickly learn the power of that little word “No” and will test the boundaries again and again. But like all children they need to be safe, they need to be listened to and they will copy the ways you behave. How you respond to difficulties will be their guide as they grow up.
These children are often bright, determined, and energetic. They become leaders in our world, the men and women who get things done, who explore the boundaries of thought and space. If you have a strong-willed child you are fortunate indeed.
Use your humor and your own example to bring up your child to become the kind, strong adult you hope he or she will become, just like you. The rewards will be immense.